"Ain't Gonna Study War No More"

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

Even Cowboys Need Friends

Bush and Blair's illegal war in Iraq has not made the world a safer place - only respect for international law can do that

In its effort to remake the global rules America has not acted alone. The legacy of Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill's visionary Atlantic charter, which led to the establishment of the United Nations, is now in the hands of the Atlantic cowboys, George Bush and Tony Blair. When Roosevelt and Churchill sprang their charter on the world in the summer of 1941, the threat to the two countries was of a wholly different order. And yet, 60 years on, an American president can show contempt for international obligations, in actions and in words: "I don't care what the international lawyers say."

His British counterpart pays lip service to international law, and then proceeds to override the views of those government advisers who know something about the subject. He feels able to proclaim, as he did in his speech in March 2004, the need for global rules as though the achievements of the past 60 years count for nought. What is left of the transatlantic commitment to international law?

The attacks of 9/11 brought Blair and Bush together to give rise to one of the great enigmas of modern British political life: why did Blair lend British support to the war on Iraq? His support for that war and the "war on terror", as well as the implicit support for the regime put in place at Guantánamo, provided oxygen and international legitimacy to acts of dubious legality and effectiveness, which had virtually no international support.

Why has Britain associated itself so closely with an administration that has such scant regard for the international rule of law? That is a difficult question that only Blair himself can answer. If an illegal war in Iraq had made the world a safer place, then arguably it might be justified. But there is little evidence that the world is a safer place, and a great deal more evidence that the Iraq war has provided a major distraction to the challenge posed by global terrorism and al-Qaida. Neither can it be said that the Middle East is more stable or peaceful, nor that the existence of the detention camp at Guantánamo and the failure to apply human rights and humanitarian law are the best way to win hearts and minds, or persuade the occupied of your humanitarian intentions.

The only plausible answer is that the prime minister believed that solidarity and self-interest required him to place Britain alongside the US, more or less whatever it chose to do. History will tell whether that was the right choice. In the meantime, Britain's stock as a law-abiding global citizen has taken a beating. Its authority and leadership role are degraded. Many British and American diplomats have expressed disquiet, recognising that their job has been made that much more difficult by the events of the past three years. It could be argued, I suppose, that Britain is following the US because it has taken a considered decision that the wholesale reconstruction of the international legal order is justified. But so far I have seen no hint that that is in fact the case, with the exception of a somewhat emotive speech by the prime minister, which suggested he was out of his depth on what the law required or permitted.

But the insurmountable difficulty with this argument is that it is based on a false premise. The US cannot go it alone, much as its behaviour might suggest it wishes it were otherwise. American unilateralism is not isolationism: the US's exposure to the world is premised on economic objectives, among others, not military objectives. The use of military power is a means to an end, not the end itself. The business community will be the first to say that commerce cannot be dictated by brute force. You cannot intimidate consumers into buying US goods, or supplying oil and other strategically significant products. Military and economic considerations cannot be separated, any more than free trade and environmental objectives can be disconnected. Once that is recognised, and you accept that some of your foreign policy objectives are premised on the application of global rules, the marginalisation of international law becomes more difficult to justify. Moreover, if Iraq and the war on terrorism have shown anything, it is that the US is dependent on alliances and coalitions whose members require something in return. Whichever way you look at it, the US needs international agreements.

The present effort by the US and Britain to remake the global rules will not succeed. It does not mean that new circumstances - failed states, terrorism and the emergence of non-state actors in particular - do not require the existing rules to be continually assessed, and to be modified where necessary. Nor does it mean that some of the global rules are not in need of a thorough overhaul, to make them more efficient and accountable to parliaments and to the people. But change is a process which inevitably requires cooperation and a broad degree of support. It cannot be imposed at gunpoint.

In this interdependent world it is hopeless to conceive of a return to nature, to a pre-regulatory environment in which each state is free to act as it wishes, unfettered by international obligations. Nor is it realistic to give effect to any sort of à la carte multilateralism, in which states are able to pick and choose those areas of international law they like and those they don't. The lessons from the World Trade Organisation and elsewhere make it clear that different social objectives are interdependent.

Imperfect as some of the international rules may be, they reflect minimum standards of acceptable behaviour and, to the extent they can be ascertained, common values. They provide an independent standard for judging the legitimacy of international actions. I do not think recent events have changed these basic assumptions or created a new paradigm.

The rules of international law will turn out to be more robust than the policies of the Bush administration. Tough guys are not enough in international relations. In the 21st century you need rules, and proper lawyers too.

Philippe Sands
Thursday February 24, 2005
The Guardian

· Extracted from Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules, by Philippe Sands, Penguin, £12.99. To order a copy for £12.34 (inc UK p&p), call the Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop


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